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The Importance of Creating Culturally Potent Work

by Avril Delaney, Copywriter

A big takeout of Cannes 2018, from the talks to the winners, was the importance of creating culturally potent work. Brands have the power to not only impact culture, but shift it entirely. Acknowledging the context in which you’re creating work is important. Our work doesn’t go out into a vacuum. Those that tap into cultural insights, or contribute to culture, get noticed.

In ‘Exploration of New Creative Processes’, Nick Barham, Chief Strategy officer at Backslash, posited that “culture is the competition”. Backslash, TBWA’s “cultural editorial arm”, was created in 2017 as a dedicated resource to discover ways in which TBWA can “play in culture”. According to Barham, we either create work that has cultural value in some way, be it offering entertainment or contributing to culture change, or risk losing relevance.

In one of the jury room sessions, a jury member commented that they sought out campaigns that not only captured the cultural zeitgeist, but solved cultural problems. However, they warned that for issues that have already been brought to light, bringing awareness to them is pointless. A solution to the problem must be offered.

They commented on the power of a brand to change the cultural conversation and reminded the audience that brands are living in a world of transformation. They cited Nissan’s ‘She Drives’ as a piece of work that didn’t simply comment on culture, but aided the cultural shift that was already happening in Saudi Arabia.

This year Saudi Arabia overturned its ban on female drivers and, according to the jury, Nissan helped “smooth the cultural change” with their campaign. That’s not to say that all “culturally potent” work must be worthy and purposeful. You can contribute to culture by simply making people laugh. “There’s a place for entertainment”, said Leila Fataar during the ‘Unskippable Craft’ panel. “You don’t need to save the world, but you do need to contribute”.


Being culturally relevant doesn’t mean just shoe-horning celebrities and influencers into your ads. In Campaign, James Murphy, writing about Cannes 2018, critiqued that, “there was still that strange obsession with celebrity — remember the time when advertising used to make culture rather than desperately try and attach itself to it?”

That being said, this was exactly what brought success to Wieden and Kennedy for their Nike Campaign, ‘Nothing Beats a Londoner’, which took home the Grand Prix in the inaugural Social and Influencer category. Jury president: Mark D’Arcy, VP, Chief Creative Officer, Facebook Creative Shop, said, “The way this work was constructed really demonstrates how culture is shaped.”



Cultural potency can solve business problems, not just societal ones. Work was proven to have cultural impact if it earned attention, earned media, and earned influence, proving that cultural potency results in creative effectiveness. In fact, culturally significant work featured heavily in the Creative Effectiveness category, with campaigns including Savlon: Healthy Hands Chalk Sticks, adidas Originals: Original is Never Finished, PEDIGREE: Child Replacement Programme, and Amnesty International: The Refugee Nation all getting metal. Proving that being culturally relevant has business rewards.

At the end of the day, advertising is about the practical application of creativity. We’re an industry of problem solvers. For us, there’s a requirement to solve a business problem, not just a societal one.

So, how can we produce more culturally potent work? There’s some obvious ways. By paying attention to what’s going on in our society, being observant of culture, and by being open to being part of the conversation and cognizant of our ability to shape culture itself.

As advised by one panel that featured the creators of Tide’s Super Bowl cultural home run: ‘Look for the next open space and occupy it.’


Read the next article:

Breaking through the glass

by Caroline Kehoe, Senior Account Director

Or see all our articles from Cannes Lions 2018